The Rape of the Lock has greatly been admired for its development of the theme and its pattern of construction. The successive scenes, says a critic, are given with so firm and a clear touch—there is such a sense of form—that it is impossible not to recognise a consummate artistic power. The poem has the merit that belongs to any work of art which expresses in the most finished form the sentiments and characteristics of a particular class of society. It contains the truest and liveliest picture of eighteenth century high society. Its subject is of a more elegant nature, as well as more artfully conducted, than that of any other mock-epic poem.
The poem opens judiciously with the guardian-sylph warning Belinda against some unknown, imminent danger. The account which Ariel gives of the nature and activities of these inhabitants of the air, namely, the sylphs, is exquisitely fancied. Several strokes of satire have been inserted into this account with great delicacy. The transformation of women of different tempers into different kinds of spirits has a great appeal. The description of the toilet, which follows, is given in magnificent terms. Belinda's dressing is painted in as pompous a manner as Achilles arming. Canto I ends with a circumstance artfully contrived to keep this beautiful machinery in the reader's eye: "The busy sylphs surround their darling care", etc.
The mention of the lock of hair, on which the poem turns, is rightly reserved for the second Canto. The sacrifice of the Baron, to implore success for his undertaking, is another example of Pope's judgment in heightening the subject. The succeeding scene of sailing upon the Thames is most gay and delightful. The machinery is again introduced here, and with much propriety. Ariel summons his denizens of the air who are painted with a rich exuberance of fancy. A different sylph has charge of each part of Belinda's dress. But as many as fifty sylphs are deputed to guard Belinda's petticoat which, though a "seven-fold fence," has often been known "to fail". The celebrated raillery of Addison on the hoop-petticoat has nothing equal to Pope's description of the difficulty of guarding a part of dress of such high consequence: "Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail."
Pope shows great delicacy in his satire when he employs, with the ; utmost judgment and elegance, all the implements and instruments of the toilet as means of punishment to those spirits who shall be careless of their duties—of punishment such as sylphs alone could undergo. If Virgil has earned such high commendation for exalting his bees, by the majesty and magnificence of his diction, Pope deserves equal praise for the pomp and lustre of his language on so trivial a subject.
The same mastery of language appears in the lively and elegant description of the game of ombre in the third Canto. Here, again, Pope artfully introduces his machinery:
Soon as she spreads her hand, the aerial guard Descend, and sit on each important card.
The majesty with which the kings of spades and clubs, and the knaves of diamonds and clubs are spoken of, is very amusing to the imagination; and the whole game is conducted with great art and judgment. It is finely contrived that Belinda should be victorious, as the victory represents a change of fortune in the dreadful loss she was speedily to undergo, and gives occasion to the poet to introduce a moral reflection from Virgil, which adds to the pleasantry of the story:
O thoughtless mortals: ever blind to fate, Too soon dejected, and too soon elate.
To this scene succeeds a coffee-table. It is doubtless as hard to make a coffee-pot shine in poetry as a plough; yet Pope has succeeded in giving elegance to so familiar an object. The guardian spirits are again active, and importantly employed. But nothing can excel their behaviour, and their wakeful solicitude for Belinda, when the danger grows more imminent, and the catastrophe approaches: "Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair". The methods by which they try to preserve her from the intended mischief are such as could only be executed by sylphs. Still further to heighten the piece and to preserve the characters of the machines to the last, one of the sylphs intervening to protect the lock is cut into two by Fate with its shears. The line: "But airy substance soon unites again" is an admirable parody on that passage of Milton, which describes Satan wounded.
The parodies are some of the most exquisite parts of this poem. The introduction of parodies on serious and solemn passages of Homer and Virgil give much life and spirit to mock-epic poetry. The parodies of the speech of Sarpedon in Homer, and of the description of Achille's sceptre, together with the scales of Jupiter from Homer and Virgil are judiciously introduced in their several places. The mind of the reader is engaged by novelty, when it so unexpectedly finds a thought or object it had been accustomed to survey in another form, suddenly arrayed in a ridiculous garb. A mixture of ridiculous and comic images, with serious and important ones, add also no small beauty to this kind of poetry, as in the passage where real and imaginary misfortunes are coupled together with reference to captured kings, frustrated lovers, aged ladies, fierce dictators, and the moon-goddess.
In the same Canto (IV), the Cave of Spleen, the pictures of the attendants, Ill-nature and Affectation, the effects of the vapour that hangs over the palace of Spleen, the imaginary diseases she occasions, the speech of Umbriel to this malignant deity, the phial of female sorrows, the breaking of the phial with its direful effects, and the speech of the disconsolate Belinda—all these circumstances are poetically imagined, and are far superior to any of Boileaii and Garth. How natural it is for Belinda in her dismal and solitary situation to wish to be taken to some place where gilt chariots are never seen, where nobody plays ombre, and where nobody tastes bohea (black tea). Nothing is more common for poets than to introduce omens as preceding some important and dreadful event. Pope enumerates, with exquisite satire, the alarming prodigies which occur before the rape of Belinda's lock. The direfulness of the impending evil is aggravated by the muteness of Poll, and the unkindness of Shock.
The chief subject of the final Canto is the battle that ensues, and the efforts of the ladies to recover the hair. The battle is described, as it ought to be, in very lofty and pompous terms. The weapons used are the most proper imaginable in a mock epic—the lightning of the ladies' eyes, intolerable frowns, a pinch of snuff, and a bodkin. The machinery is not forgotten. Triumphant Umbriel claps his glad wings on viewing the fight. When the snuff is flung at the Baron, the gnomes carry it directly to the Baron's nose.
Then comes the grand catastrophe of the poem. The invaluable lock, which is so eagerly sought, is lost beyond recovery. And here the poet makes a judicious use of that famous fiction of Ariosto, that all things lost on earth are treasured on the moon. The denouement of this is well-conducted. What has become of this important lock of hair ? It is made a constellation with that of Berenice. As it rises to heaven, the sylphs behold it in its flight and feel pleased with its progress through the skies. The machinery of the poem is constantly kept in the readers view, to the very last. Even when the lock is transformed into a constellation, the sylphs, who had so carefully guarded it, are here once again artfully mentioned, as finally rejoicing in its honourable transformation.
John Dennis was, however, not much impressed by the construction of this poem. According to him, the machinery of the poem renders the action extravagant, absurd and incredible instead of making it wonderful and delightful. The machines, he says, do not in the least influence that action; they neither prevent the danger of Belinda, nor promote it, nor retard it, unless perhaps for one moment, which is ridiculous. There is no opposition of the machines to one another in the poem. Umbriel, the gnome, is not introduced till the action is over, and till Ariel and the spirits under him have quitted Belinda.
Dennis is of the view that there is no such thing as the fable or characters in the poem. The sentiments, according to him, are both trivial and extravagant. Dennis considers Umbriel's journey to the
to be irrelevant: "How absurd was it then for this ignis fatuous* to take a journey down to the central earth, for no other purpose than to give Belinda the spleen, whom he left and found in the height of it." Cave of Spleen